Tuesday, November 19, 2013

‘Up Late’ goes down early

WELL, THAT didn’t take very long, did it? Just when you were getting comfortable with something new on MSNBC Friday nights, just when “Up Late With Alec Baldwin” was ready to be weekend destination viewing ... the show’s gone (at least temporarily), the apparent victim of the frequent and outsized passions of its host.

Last Thursday, Baldwin was videotaped apparently using an anti-gay epithet against a photographer during an incident on a street in New York. Then the next day, he obliquely threatened a Fox News reporter outside his apartment in Manhattan. “If you’re still here when my wife and kid come out, you’re going to have a big problem, you know that?”

He later said, “You are as dumb as you look. You are with Fox, right?” Variety.com reported the incident, among other news outlets. MSNBC suspended Baldwin on Friday, furloughing his weekly program for two weeks.

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Almost immediately, Baldwin fired up the apology machine, taking a full-court-press approach to damage control. ”Anti-gay slurs are wrong,” he tweeted. “They not only offend, but threaten hard fought tolerance of LGBT rights ... I’m grateful to all of the ppl I meet + hear from who recognize that I would never say something to offend my friends in the gay community.”

In a statement on MSNBC's website, Baldwin said he “did not intend to hurt or offend anyone with my choice of words, but clearly I have — and for that I am deeply sorry.” The Emmy-winning “30 Rock” actor said that he was trying to protect his family but took actions that undermined “hard-fought rights that I vigorously support.”

And in a statement published Sunday in The Huffington Post, Baldwin offered a more expansive perspective of the recent events.

“I never used the word faggot in the tape recording being offered as evidence against me. What word is said right after the other choice word I use is unclear. But I can assure you, with complete confidence, that a direct homophobic slur (or indirect one for that matter) is not spoken. In the wake of referring to a tabloid ‘journalist’ as a toxic queen, I would never allow myself to make that mistake again, nor would I expose my wife and family to the attendant ridicule.

“My friends who happen to be gay are baffled by this. They see me as one who has recently fought for marriage equality and has been a supporter of gay rights for many years. Now, the charge of being a "homophobic bigot," to quote one crusader in the gay community, is affixed.”

But Bill Carter of The New York Times reported Friday that members of the LGBT community Baldwin referenced have taken umbrage with the actor. Carter reported that “numerous representatives of the gay community have spoken out against Mr. Baldwin, including the organization GLAAD, which noted that the actor had a history of speaking out against discrimination. GLAAD said: ‘Mr. Baldwin can’t lend his support for equality on paper, while degrading gay people in practice,’ and added: ‘It’s clearly time he listens to the calls from so many L.G.B.T. people and allies to end this pattern of antigay slurs.’ ”

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IT’S NOT as if there haven’t been previous examples of Baldwin impersonating an I.E.D. He apologized after using homophobic slurs to threaten George Stark, a reporter for the Daily Mail (UK), who claimed that Baldwin’s wife, Hilaria Thomas, had tweeted about wedding gifts and television appearances during James Gandolfini's funeral in June.

“I’d put my foot up your fucking ass, George Stark, but I'm sure you'd dig it too much,” one Baldwin tweet read. “I'm gonna find you George Stark, you toxic little queen, and I'm gonna fuck you... up,” he added.

He was involved in a Feburary dustup with New York Post photographer G.N. Miller, reportedly making racist remarks, calling the man a “coon” and a “crackhead.”

He went off on a photographer in August in lower Manhattan, days after Thomas gave birth to their daughter. He shoved New York Daily News photographer Marcus Santos outside Manhattan's Marriage License Bureau in June 2012. He was jettisoned from an American Airlines flight in December 2011 for refusing to turn his phone off while playing Words With Friends. In September 2011 he clashed with a barista at a Starbucks on upper Broadway, calling her an “uptight queen.”

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All of this costs Baldwin serious exposure in the public square. The recent incident that led to MSNBC suspending his program forces an exit from the national tele-conversation that couldn’t have come at a worse time.

“Whether the show comes back at all is at issue right now,” Baldwin said at HuffPost. “My producers and I had a very enlightening and well-researched program prepared to air on November 22nd itself, dealing with John Kennedy's assassination. That show is off the air now.”

Though the removal of “Up Late” is supposed to be a temporary thing, it’s hard to see how MSNBC can possibly bring the show back with Baldwin as host. The problem with Baldwin’s explanation of recent events is that it contains a previous, self-admitted example of precisely the kind of slur (“toxic little queen”) Baldwin is accused of using this most recent time. Obviously, it’s more of a push to buy into your explanation of an incident when you’ve admitted doing previously that which it’s necessary to deny this time.

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WITH A HANDFUL of “Up Late” programs, Baldwin proved to be an insightful, inquisitive talk-show host fast learning the rhythms and boundaries of the talk-show format (building on what he learned last year subbing as host for “The Last Word,” Lawrence O’Donnell’s MSNBC program). From the start he was good and getting better.

In his first show, a sitdown with Bill de Blasio (then New York City Public Advocate, now Mayor-elect of New York City) Baldwin displayed an amiable but relentless interview style, as he probed de Blasio on the policies he’d pursue as NYC’s mayor.

Baldwin also had a great interview with Debra Winger, the three-time Oscar-nominated actress who opted out of Hollywood at least temporarily to focus on family and her activities as an anti-fracking activist.

The viewers were there: The Los Angeles Times reported on Oct. 14 that the de Blasio program “drew an average of about 654,000 viewers ... an improvement of 53% compared with MSNBC's Friday night telecast in the hour-long 10 p.m. time slot a week ago.”

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FOR NOW, there’s not much left except the postmortem according to the blogosphere. Hannalee, commenting in HuffPost: “I’m not saying I would be in his place -- probably not. I hear and believe everything he's saying about being provoked by insane media vultures. I'm sympathetic to people trying to protect their private lives. But to me it seems that Baldwin does not have sufficient control of himself. ... It might not improve his relationship with the media -- but I’d say Baldwin needs some anger management, something that might make him particularly angry!”

GHO, HuffPost: “Because you have once more lost your temper and embarrassed yourself, the good work of your coworkers at MSNBC may go unseen.”

Jae at the People magazine Web site: “Does anyone believe him? Those are practically the exact same words he used to defend himself the last time he was caught using gay slurs.”

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His actions may put MSNBC in an untenable position. In light of his track record for public detonations, and the nature of both the new accusations and his own admitted intemperate comments, it would be, well, toxic for a network that prides itself on Leaning Forward to overlook a case of backwards behavior.

Which is uniformly too bad: Baldwin (at least for now) loses a powerful platform for expanding his voice and his brand beyond impromptu fisticuffs and Capital One ads. MSNBC loses its bid for fresh Friday-night programming. And the viewing public is denied its welcome parole from one night of MSNBC’s “Lockup” prison-doc series. A low-down dirty damn shame all the way around.

Image credits: Baldwin top, 'Up Late' title card, Baldwin and Debra Winger, MSNBC logo: © 2013 MSNBC.

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